Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit, all signatories of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine were bound to protect citizens against wrongdoings of genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This came after the failure of the international community to prevent the tragedies in Rwanda and the Balkans in the late 20th century. Yet, it is 2017 and we are still witnessing humanitarian disasters in all corners of the world.

Some would argue that the R2P principle reinforces state sovereignty, as it encourages states to uphold their prevailing responsibilities to citizens, as well as offering UN assistance in achieving this. Many regard the doctrine as a symbolic step in raising the importance of human rights on the UN agenda.

The “Just Intervention” Conference, at the Diplomatic Academy in October 2017, questioned these presumptions of R2P. An important issue was highlighted in the question that Angela Kane, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, posed “Where does responsibility lie in R2P?” Surely, it must be nation states that protect their own? She continued, “Can you intervene as R2P as another state from the outside, or do we have an obligation?”

The underlying problem is that R2P denies the sovereignty of states, which is compounded by the fact that the international community is often all too eager to interfere. As Matthias Dembinski from the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt elaborated, humanitarian interventions form a subcategory of military interventions – they therefore may, or may not, be authorised by approval of government of the target country. This threat to sovereignty is a significant and delicate issue, which has rendered the R2P principle obsolete.  

Military intervention within R2P was always intended to be a last resort, nevertheless its lack of effectiveness in conflicts in the past several decades, as well as its frequency of use, indicates that we must find a suitable alternative, urgently.

One only has to look to the humanitarian crisis in Syria for evidence. As Hannes Swoboda of the IIP stated, “R2P is a good principle, but if it is misused, the principle as such is damaged”.

An inherent weakness of the doctrine lies in the fact that military intervention has become too heavily relied upon. R2P has resultantly been “used and abused” by multiple states, as a method through which to display military power, increase territorial control, and spread cultural or ideological influence.

More importantly, the R2P notion itself is unclear. As Swoboda detailed, “R2P is an ambiguous concept. The principle is that every case is different. Every case must be looked into with very careful considerations if that intervention is good or bad”.

A clear failure of the principle can be contributed to the fact that it does not require credible stabilisation procedures to be implemented post-intervention. Furthermore, its ambiguity has allowed states to manipulate the principle to justify their exploitation. With its damaging track record, R2P has become so problematic that we must come to the realisation that our protection is not guaranteed. A more worrying proposal is whether we should still have the right to protection.

Ursula Werther-Pietsch, from the Ministry of European and External Affairs in Austria, emphasised how the past few decades in the history of R2P have hurt those who need it most, as it has led to a “loss of impact of human rights to the advantage of geopolitics.”

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria Erwin Lanc believes this trend is historical and it has become normal to see major global states “fighting for commodities and markets…even military interventions”. Thus, the dispute that R2P should completely disassociate itself from military interventions has arisen. Yet, we must be realistic – is there a likelihood of separating humanitarian relief from military protection?

An alternative concept, cited by Kane, is the use of the term “human security” as opposed to R2P. “Human security” reinforces the role of governments and does not defy state autonomy.

There are those, however, who feel differently, such as MGIMO panellist Alexander Nikitin who stated that “sovereignty has a dubious value – it is never absolute”, therefore the arguments against intervention within R2P are weak.

Although this may be a controversial view, is there some truth to it? Furthermore, he indicated that  “we are not yet a united world society, and there is no world governance”, hence there is no body fit to judge whether an intervention is necessary or not within the context of R2P.

Who then, if anyone, holds the responsibility for protection?